Starfox: Altered Universe:

Chapter 4: Adjustment

"I still can’t believe you’re really here, Bill!" Fox shook his head in amazement, unable to quit staring at his old friend. The canine had brought the vulpine back to his personal quarters, and smiled back at him from the doorway leading to another room.

"I can’t quite believe it myself," he said, striding back into the room carrying two cans of soda. He flipped one over to Fox, who nonchalantly caught it in midair. The vulpine flicked open the can and tool a long drink from it as he gazed around the apartment-like room, obviously impressed by its size. Bill flopped down onto a worn couch and grinned at his friend’s awe. "Sweet setup, huh?"

"Yeah," Fox agreed, "much better than where I was living."

"Well, I hope so!" Bill laughed, taking another gulp from his soda. He followed the vulpine with his eyes as he wandered around the room, looking at all of Bill’s stuff. Fox smiled as he noticed a surfboard with green lightning streaks hanging on the far wall. Walking over to it, his ran his fingers lightly over its smooth surface and turned a grin toward Bill.

"Some things never change," he commented. "Still obsessed with the lure of the waves, I see."

"Yeah," but Bill couldn’t keep a bit of disappointment from his voice as he added, "But I don’t have a lot of time for that sort of thing now."

Fox stared at his old friend. "Why not?"

"Too much work to be done," Bill replied with a shrug. "It’s not so bad. It’s just that with working with Rabbi as an alternate pilot for the Arwings... on top with being commander..."

"WHAT? You’re a commander? B...but you’re only..."

"Nineteen?" Bill grinned at Fox. "I know, I couldn’t believe it either when I got assigned. But that’s what the man wanted, so... Actually, the Husky Squadron’s a pretty cool bunch. A lot of young fighter jocks who got pushed into battle young, and got good at it instead of getting splattered. The general got impressed with us and grouped us into our own unit. I’m not the youngest in the bunch," he added, although he didn’t mention that he wasn’t exactly the eldest, either. Pointing to a shelf near Fox, he said, "There’s a group photo on the counter next to you. Take a look."

Fox did so, picking up a long frame that sat by his elbow and glancing at it. Several rows of youthful faces stared back at him, standing at full attention, as if lined up for inspection. "Mostly dogs here," he commented, although that fact wasn’t what stood out to him the most. It was the expression frozen on those faces: one of a fledgling hope, of dreams and longings. The green-and-yellow uniforms they wore seemed to add an aura of borrowed adulthood to many of the cadets, like children forced to face harsh reality before they were ready. Exactly that, in fact.

Bill shrugged off Fox’s comment, saying, "Well, that’s why we opted to call it the Husky Squadron instead of the Chicken Brigade or something like that."

Fox laughed politely as he set down the picture frame, his gaze straying to the other photographs that sat on the counter. One of the photos caught his eye, and he picked up a picture of a ten-year-old Bill. The young Grey was holding a skateboard in his paws, and a band-aid was stuck behind his wide nose, eager blue eyes half-hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses hanging off-balance on his muzzle. Beside him, a ferret was grinning at the camera, dressed in an oversized tanktop and shorts that matched the ones young Bill was wearing. Standing behind the two children were two older canines, beaming down at them.

"Your family," Fox said more than asked. Bill glanced at the picture the vulpine held and nodded.

"Yup. That was taken a few months after Mom and Dad adopted Sable," he said. Then, more quietly, "And before we were attacked by Andross."

Fox lowered his eyes. He hadn’t known that Bill was still alive until just a few hours before, yet he understood instinctively what his old friend meant by those words. An awkward silence fell between the two for a moment, and the vulpine gently replaced the photo on the mantle. There was nothing more to be said on the point.

"So," Bill swung his legs off the couch and tossed his empty can toward an overflowing wastebasket in one corner, "What do you plan to do from here, exactly?"

"I don’t know," Fox confessed. "I’m not even certain why I came, to be honest. Part of me wants to join up with you guys and start flying, just like my father. But another part..." He let the words trail off with a sigh, and his feet carried him to a chair near Bill’s seat, where he flopped down. Bill gazed as his friend and echoed his sigh.

"Foxy... I can’t tell you what to do," he said, getting to his feet. Fox looked up at him, mildly amazed that the canine had gotten so tall in six years. "All I can tell you is to follow what your heart tells you to do. I always have, and it’s never steered me wrong." Bill walked out of the room, calling back, "You can crash here for the night, and until they get you settled in. I’ve got somewhere to be. I’ll be back in a bit."

Fox watched his old friend leave, then closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. A nagging thought pushed its way to the front of his mind, and he whispered it aloud.

"But how will I know which way is right..."

***

Just as Bill had taken Fox to his quarters, so had Katt Monroe dragged Falco to her own room. The avian settled into a overstuffed armchair as the pink feline all but flung herself into a brightly colored beanbag. Falco gazed around at the countless posters of teen idols that wallpapered the room without comment, also choosing to ignore the pink tint that dominated everything in the chamber.

"Cool room, huh?" Katt prodded, sprawled out upside-down on her beanbag. Falco remained silent, and Katt rolled over to get a better view of the bird. "Oh, I get it: not exactly your style, right?" she said, not in the least bit insulted. "Hey, take a listen to this." The feline dug a remote control out from under a pile of junk, pointed it toward a stereo set up nearby, and pressed a button. Instantly a fast-paced rock song blared out from the speakers. As Katt hastily struggled to find the volume control, she stole a glance over at the avian, who was gazing out the window, seemingly oblivious to the noise.

"Yo, Corneria to Falco; come in, Falco," Katt teased, causing the bird to glance back at her. A small smile spread across Falco’s beak as she looked at the feline, then she resumed staring out the window.

"Well," Katt huffed as if upset, but she remained smiling. Even after six years apart, she understood that this was just the way her friend acted sometimes. Grinning playfully, she put on a teasing expression and cooed, "Hey Falco, remember how we met?"

That did it. The avian whirled to stare at her, eyes widened into orbs. After a moment, they both burst out laughing, and Falco cried out, "Don’t remind me! That was too much!"

Katt grinned happily, even as she felt her cheeks redden with remembered embarrassment. The two had met because of someone’s playing a rather nasty trick on the feline when she was seven. This person, his name long forgotten by both, had informed her that the then nine-year-old Falco Lombardi was a really cute guy. Katt thought he was telling the truth, and her belief was further strengthened when she saw the azure avian for the first time, roughhousing with Fox and Bill. She quickly developed a crush on the cute ‘guy,’ and began following Falco around at school, finally working up the courage to invite the bird and ‘his’ friends to a pool party at her house. Imagine her surprise when her crush turned up wearing a frilly bikini instead of shorts. Afterwards, Katt had confessed her mistake to Falco, who shocked her by laughing it off and offering to help the feline set up her revenge on the one who’d misinformed her. The two ended up becoming close friends, something which Katt had seriously missed these past six years.

"So how are things between you and the boys now?" Katt asked once she had finally calmed down. "I bet they just loved being stranded with the most beautiful girl on Corneria for six years!"

"Shut UP," Falco howled in mock rage, though some of it was real. "Seriously, Katt, you know me better than that!"

"I know, I know."

"They probably DID enjoy it, though," Falco said, blushing slightly. "But let me tell you, Slippy acted like a real hentai sometimes."

"No! Really?" Katt prompted.

"Yes," and Falco lowered her voice to a clandestine whisper, "In fact, one time, I was taking a bath in the pond, and he just walked right in on me!" Katt gasped appropriately, and Falco nodded gravely before continuing, "Of course, he said he didn’t know I was out there, but I mean, does he really expect anyone to believe that sort of junk?"

"Really," and Katt nodded in agreement before asking, "So what did you do to him?"

"Oh, the usual," Falco said. "Screamed my head off, wrapped a towel around myself and tried to smash in his face. Of course, Foxy stopped me and told me to calm down. I think he was a little angry himself, though."

"I can imagine," Katt laughed. Then her expression changed suddenly. "Still, I wouldn’t exactly mind being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a couple of guys who were totally gone on me..."

"Get your mind out of the gutter, Katt," Falco warned, then rapidly changed the subject. "So you’re an Arwing pilot now? Never thought I’d see a free spirit like you working with the army..."

"Oh, I’m not with those old cooks," Katt scoffed. When Falco stared at her, she explained, "I’m just a mercenary. I cast my lot in with the alliance to destroy Andross. Nothing more than that. It’s an okay job: free room and board, and I get a lot for each enemy ship I shoot down. 64 bits a ship adds up fast."

"... Interesting..." Falco mused to herself. When Katt asked what she meant, she ignored the question, instead asking, "So Katt, are there any cute guys in the service?" As the feline gushed a reply, the azure avian tuned out her voice and went back to thinking.

***

Slippy staggered down the hall in a daze, his eyes wide as he went over what had just happened in his mind. Looking back, he still couldn’t believe it. The ferret girl --her name was Sable, right?-- had all but dragged him into a room where he saw countless new machines being worked on by crews of hundreds. However, Sable hadn’t slowed down enough for him to get a closer look, pulling him along, babbling the whole time about how he just had to meet her mentor, the head of the engineering department, and just how wonderful a guy he was, even if he did make her work too hard sometimes on one of her sketches...

In a few minutes, they had apparently arrived, and Sable was banging on the hood of an amazing-looking tank. She called it the Landmaster, then banged all the hander on the side and yelled out a name: "Beltino! Hey, Chief! Beltino? YO! CHIEF! HEYYYYY BELLLLL-TIIIII-NOOOOO..."

Finally a latch had swung open and an irate-looking amphibian’s head popped out. Grumbling something about loud-mouthed apprentices, he had clambered down from his perch, glared at Sable, and yelled, "What the heck do you want?"

Then he noticed Slippy, and his mouth fell open. Staring up into a face which, despite its age, could have passed for a mirror of his own, Slippy felt his jaw do the same. Sable glanced swiftly at the two, then her eyes widened behind those tinted goggles and she started screaming.

"OH! It’s you!" she’d cried, pointing at Slippy while staring at him as if seeing him for the first time. "You’re the one Mister Beltino is always going on about! Oh man oh man oh man! You’re his son! The son he said got lost and died six years ago! Only you’re not dead, you can’t be dead if you’re here now, so you must be alive and living! And you’re here now, so I guess you’re not really his lost son anymore... well, you GOTTA be his son, you have the same last name and all, but..."

This, while Slippy saw his father for the first time in six years. Once Sable had finally calmed down (actually, once she stopped to take a breath), Beltino had quietly instructed her to leave them alone for a while. Miraculously, she obliged.

What had followed was a long father-and-son discussion. Beltino had wanted to know everything that had happened to Slippy during those intervening six years, and Slippy wanted the same thing from his dad. The two had talked for what seemed like days, yet the young amphibian could tell from looking at the clock that only a few hours had passed. The two had exchanged stories about how they had survived the attack, and both had cried when Slippy learned of his mother’s death. Slippy explained how he had helped his friends survive, and got a strange happiness when he related his side of his little encounter with Falco and realized that his father fully believed him. The two had kept talking until finally Beltino had noticed the time and suggested that they get some sleep. Handing Slippy a slip of paper with a code on it, he gave him directions on how to get to his room. He told his son to go ahead and get some sleep: he’d be staying up a bit longer.

Now Slippy fumbled to press the correct keys and unlock the door to his father’s room. As it slid open, the exhausted amphibian flopped onto the nearest piece of furniture and yawned loudly. As he shifted to make himself comfortable on the couch, he felt a sense of serenity come over him as he thought of his father. Suddenly, he didn’t feel like he was quite so alone anymore, knowing that his father would be there for him from now on...

A sudden thought made his sleepy eyes snap open. He had someone there for him now, but what about Fox or Falco? Both of them had lost both of their parents: Fox to a car accident, and to Andross’s hordes, respectively; Falco had never really known her family, being orphaned at age five.

Slippy sat straight up on the couch, a terrible thought slapping him across the face: ~Will they look at me differently now, because I have something they don’t? Will they... hate me now?~

The thought lodged in his mind, refusing to be dispelled. Sitting upright in the darkened room, Slippy suddenly felt very alone.

***

Sunlight seeped through the shades and crept in thin shafts across the cluttered floor. The wispy beams streaked everything in the room with alternating bands of light and shadow. As the shafts expanded over a worn-out green couch, they fell across the relaxed features of a sleeping vulpine, setting the reddish-orange fur ablaze. The teenage fox groaned and shifted his weight, instinctively turning his back to the light. A faint whishing noise announced a door’s opening on the other side of the room, and an exhausted-looking canine with short ashen fur and wearing green pajamas that looked as though someone had splashed yellow paint on them emerged from the portal.

"’Morning, Fox," he yawned, stretching his arms wide. Shuffling over to the window, he raised the blinds, allowing sunlight to pour into the room. Fox winced and tried to bury his nose in one corner of the couch, thinking murderous thoughts about the canine. These thoughts became progressively worse as the dog padded over to his side and began shaking his body, saying, "C’mon, Foxy, gotta get up now."

Finally, the vulpine gave in. "All right, all right, Bill, I’m up, I’m up." Bill Grey nodded in drowsy satisfaction and stumbled back to his room to change clothes. Smacking his lips to get rid of the annoying dry feeling, Fox swung his legs over the side of the couch and, through a great concentration of will, forced his eyes open. As the glaring sunlight faded into a more tolerable glow, the vulpine glanced down at his outfit. He hadn’t had any pajamas of his own, so Bill had lent him one of his robes. Fox nearly gagged at the sight of the banana-yellow fabric, but knew he couldn’t just sleep with his clothes on. Not if he wanted to make a good impression on everyone here...

Yawning, Fox pulled off the yellow robe and tossed it in the general direction of a heap of clothes he’d noticed earlier. As he shrugged on his normal, slightly worn green shirt and pants, he stole a glance at his reflection in a nearby mirror. ~Not half bad,~ he told himself as he secured a red bandana around his neck. ~But I’ll probably need to get some new clothes later.~ Picking up his helmet from the floor, he placed it on his head, took a final look in the mirror, and flopped back down onto the comfortable couch.

"Ready?" Fox looked over to where Bill had reemerged from his room: the canine’s eyes danced behind his customary sunglasses. He was in his normal uniform: a yellow-and-green flight suit with a matching helmet covering his head. Smiling at his old friend, Bill commented, "Looking good, Fox. But remind me to take you to pick up some more casual clothes later. Now let’s get moving: I want to show you around before your appointment."

***

Falco Lombardi was already up and about by the time Katt awoke. The feline came slinking out of her room to find the avian up and dressed, sitting in the armchair watching the cat stare at her.

"How..." Katt finally managed.

"You know I like to get up early," Falco replied before she could finish. Glancing back at the feline, she added, "I hope you’re not planning to go out like that."

Katt looked down at her puffy-sleeved, lace-collared, pastel-tinted pajamas and felt color spring to her cheeks. "Of course not!" she all but screamed, ducking back into her room. Falco smiled to herself, then turned and continued to scrutinize her appearance in the full-length mirror tacked to the wall. The avian carefully smoothed out her rose-colored blouse and scarlet pants, making certain that they complimented her beauty. Satisfied that her outfit suited her, she began to brush her plumage for the fourth time that morning, until the royal blue feathers practically glowed.

Katt yanked on a pair of jeans and a bright T-shirt with the words, "Love Never Changes" printed in bold pink letters across the chest. Giving herself the once-over in the mirror mounted on her door, she smiled and pranced out to meet her friend. The avian glanced back at her without saying a word.

"We’d better get moving," the feline said, seizing the bird’s wing. "Let’s go cut a path through the local male wildlife."

"I hate boys," Falco muttered under her breath as she was pulled out the door into the hall. "Why not just show me around the place?"

"Oh... okay," Katt replied slowly. She was noticeably more subdued as they walked away from her room.

***

"Rise and shine, son!" Beltino called at the top of his lungs. Slippy woke up with a start and tumbled off of the couch. The elder Toad looked down at him a little sheepishly. "Er, sorry..."

"D-d-don’t worry about it, d-d-dad," Slippy stammered, at the same time wondering if his heart would ever slow down again.

"Sorry," Beltino repeated, adding, "I’m a little rusty at this whole parenthood thing. Um... you want anything for breakfast?"

"C-c-cold cereal will be fine, d-d-dad," came the reply. Slippy was a little surprised to notice how hard the last word was for him to pronounce. The whole thing seemed like some unreal dream.

"Right!" Beltino headed for the kitchen at once, leaving Slippy to adjust his rumpled clothes and wake the rest of the way up. After a few moments, the younger amphibian had gathered enough of his wits to stumble into the small room after his father and slump into a chair. Beltino grinned happily and slid a bowl brimming with some sugar-coated cereal to the boy, who dug into the cereal eagerly. Without even realizing it, the elder Toad watched his son eat with a strange blend of affection and disbelief.

Three sharp, staccato raps at the front door snapped him out of his reverie. "I’ll get it," he told Slippy, and strode toward the door. It slid open to reveal Sable standing on the other side, dressed in a simple shirt-and-jeans combo, a cobalt jacket wrapped around her waist. Her flight goggles were shoved back onto her forehead, several locks of blackish-brown fur sticking out from beneath it. The ferret grinned up at him.

"Heya Mister B! Is Slippy here?" she asked, peering around his body. "I’ve been asked to show him around a bit, then escort him to a meeting..."

"Slippy’s eating now..." Beltino started, not exactly eager to hear the young girl launch into one of her long-winded stories.

"I’m done, d-d-dad," Slippy interrupted, suddenly hovering at the elder amphibian’s shoulder. Sable smiled at him, then looked back up at Beltino.

"Well, that’s great! We’ll be going now, Mister B! See ya!" Before Beltino could reply, the ferret darted down the hall, and Slippy squeezed past his father and went after her. The younger frog waved over his shoulder at him, disappearing after Sable. Beltino stood in the doorway, utterly stunned, for a few moments more, then sighed and retreated back into his suddenly empty-feeling room. As he walked into the kitchen, he barely glanced at the bowl of half-eaten cereal on the table.

***

"This is the hangar where my squadron keeps our ships when we’re visiting here," Bill said as he swept one arm around, as if giving his friend a measure of the massive room. Fox whistled appreciatively at the ships landed there, then turned to stare at the canine as something suddenly registered in his mind.

"When you’re visiting here?..."

"Oops! Guess I forgot to tell you," Bill said with an apologetic grin. "My unit’s stationed on Katina. At the last free base there, in fact. I just come here from time to time to check up on Sable, catch up on things, and when I’m on special call for an emergency."

"You mean you don’t... live here?"

"No, you’re getting it all wrong. Corneria’s my home; it’ll always be home. Only now they need me to serve somewhere else: on Katina. It’s where I have to be... most of the time, anyway. Not when they need me to fly an Arwing for some mission."

"But... doesn’t that put a major strain on you?"

"Yeah," and Bill shrugged it off, "but I don’t mind. It’s what the Alliance needs me to do, so..."

Fox looked at his friend wistfully. "Bill..."

"Besides," the canine suddenly muttered under his breath, "the fight for Katina means a lot to me too."

"Huh?"

Bill paused a moment before saying, "You know how Sable’s my adopted sis?" When Fox nodded, he continued, "Well, her folks were part of the Katina Colony Project. They were working with the Alliance to make the planet a hospitable world and all that. They lived in Katina Colony 01, the first base established there. In fact, she was the first child to be born in those colonies. Everybody figured that they were in for a new era, where people could live freely on Katina and other planets like it.

"But then Andross decided to attack." Bill’s eyes hardened as he spoke the name, and his paws slowly began to clench into fists. "He wiped out all the colonies... just blew them all apart, poof, gone bye-bye. Only a few people made it out alive, and even then most of the survivors were horribly mangled by the bomb blasts. Sable was one of the lucky ones: she got out with her body in one piece."

"But her folks..." Fox breathed, the picture suddenly becoming terribly clear to him.

"Bingo. She and all the others had to be brought to Corneria, to try and start over. Mom and Dad found out about what had happened from their coworkers. They aided in the evacuation and reorientation of the survivors, and found Sable. She was only eight years old then... They decided to adopt her, of course, and brought her home. I didn’t find out about her past until a few years later, after Andross attacked Corneria. I was looking through some of Dad’s old records and found a report over what happened."

Bill slammed a fist into the pillar beside him, grimacing more with rage than with pain. "That damned ape made Sable lose everything her held dear. She had to lose her home and her parents, not just once, but TWICE!... If I ever get my sights on that monkey, I’m going to blow his brains out. Slowly."

Fox stared at Bill, alarmed by the sudden change in his friend. The canine was leaning heavily against the pillar now, his eyes cold steel behind the blackness of his shades. His normally cheerful face was contorted into an expression of barely controlled hatred, and his clenched paws seemed to tremble with a sort of energy.

"Bill..."

***

Falco followed Katt through the twisting halls and into a wide, populated area the feline referred to as "Corneria City, underground style." As she strode confidently down the pathways, she cheerfully explained how the Alliance had ordered its construction to house the citizens until the threat posed by Andross was taken care of for good. The avian, however, was more concerned with the looks the pair had been receiving from most of the men they walked by. The majority of those stares, some awestruck, some leering, had been directed toward herself, although her feline friend was receiving her own fair share of glances. Falco understood how men would be unable to resist her stunning beauty: nevertheless, it was annoying to say the least.

"Katt," she muttered, "Don’t you think you should show me more of the base?"

"Later, later," Katt replied, waving away her protests. "I’ve got to show you this great new music store I found! And then there’s this cool cafe I’ve been hearing so much about... and this absolutely fantastic clothing store..."

Sighing, Falco threw an icy glare in the direction of some guy she was certain had just leered at her, her boots clicking against the pavement as she followed the feline.

***

Not too far away, Sable was leading Slippy down a separate street in a similar way. As she half-led, half-dragged the amphibian along, she continued to gush, "I just have to show you this place: it’s fantastic! I know you’ll enjoy yourself when we get there! Just you wait and see! Oh, wait, here we are!" She stopped short, nearly causing Slippy to crash into her back. Apparently not noticing his loss of balance, she grandly gestured to a building in front of her, saying, "Ta-dah!"

Slippy looked up and read the brightly colored sign over the entrance. "‘Corneria Crusher: Rocking Video Arcade’. Huh." Glancing into the window, he could make out what appeared to be thousands blinking lights and game consoles, most surrounded by packs of other people. Then Sable yanked on his arm again, and was pulling him through the door. Once inside, he nearly had to cover his ears because of the blaring noise. A thumping rock song pounded from speakers located in the walls, and various voices fought to be heard over the sound. Every now and then, a collective cheer or sympathetic moan would rise from one of the groups clustered around each game, depending on what had just happened to the person actually playing.

Sable cut a path through the herds of bodies, dragging Slippy along until he thought his arm would be permanently dislocated. Finally, she plunked down in front of a gigantic television screen featuring what looked like a row of strange pads wired up to its front. The ferret told him, "Check this out: it’s a fighting simulation game called Battle Roar. It’s totally cool. See, watch," she instructing, stepping onto the pad. Taking what appeared to be a set of gloves, armpads, and kneepads from the front of the machine, she strapped them into place with a practiced ease. Pulling on a strange chest-plate that looked almost like a jacket, she winked at Slippy and repeated, "Watch." She pressed a red button on the front of the machine, and suddenly the massive screen flashed to life. The frog’s eyes widened as a fully rendered image of the feisty ferret appeared on the monitor.

"Neat, huh? This has to be one of my most favorite games of all time! You see," and Sable began to go through some practice moves, her double on the screen copying her exactly, "the way this works is, you move the way you want to, and your image does the same thing. You can practice fighting hand-to-hand without even getting hurt. You can choose to fight the computer, or, if someone else straps in like I have in one of those other areas, a living opponent! I’ve an expert at this," she added with a grin.

"Oh, is that so?" Both Slippy and Sable turned to see a moose-like man towering over them, a patronizing sneer on his face. Slippy gulped as he noticed the thick muscles bulging under the guy’s tight-fitting shirt.

"Yeah," Sable replied flippantly. The moose cocked an eyebrow.

"Think you could beat me?" he teased. Sable glanced up at him: she barely came up to his chest.

"Of course!" she grinned. Slippy’s eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets as he stared at the crazy girl. She threw him a wink.

"Well, why don’t we see about that," the moose said, a malicious grin spreading over his snout as he strode over to the next pad. As he strapped into his gear, Slippy sneaked over to Sable and whispered something in her ear.

"Well, of course I’ll feel it if I get beaten," she replied. "This pads also feed back to create a feeling similar to being hurt if the double’s struck. It’s not as severe, though. Don’t worry," she assured him. "That’s only IF I get hit."

Not at all reassured by her words, Slippy retreated back to just out of the pad. Sable smiled at him, then flipped her goggles over her eyes and assumed a fighting stance. As both combatants tensed, a small crowd began to form around the game. A deep, digitized voice intoned the countdown: "Three... Two... One... FIGHT!"

Roaring a battle cry, the moose lunged forward on his pad. His double on screen leaped toward the image of Sable. At the last possible moment, however, the ferret tensed and, in a move too quick to follow, sidestepped away, leaving the moose’s image to sprawl out beside her.

"WHAT?" bellowed the stunned bully. Sable just smiled again, and her paws blurred suddenly. Her image began to pepper the towering man’s with blows. Groaning, he swept one massive fist at her face. The ferret stepped backwards slightly, then reached forward and grasped the air. The crowd gasped as her double seized the other’s fist, halting it in midswing.

Sable made a quick jump on the pad beneath her: on the screen, she leaped onto the doubled-over moose’s back and vaulted off. Beside her, the bully grunted and struggled to his feet, only to cry out as the digital Sable’s foot swung into his double’s chest. He swayed slightly, obviously feeling the punches she rained down upon him while the crowd cheered and howled.

Slippy stared at Sable’s swaying, weaving figure in total astonishment. It was as if the ferret knew exactly what her opponent was going to do seconds before the moose himself did. Her body twisted and rolled in a strange mimicry of the battle onscreen. Behind her tinted goggles, he could see her dancing blue eyes had narrowed in concentration, the only sign that she was under any sort of stress.

Finally her double ducked under a final, desperate attempt by the moose to take hold of her and threw an uppercut at his chest. The moose groaned as it connected, and he swayed on his feet for a moment before stumbling backward into the crowd. Those unfortunate enough to be directly behind him yelped and scrambled out of his way as he crashed to the floor.

"YOU WIN!" the digital announcer boomed, and a roar came up from the crowd as Sable pushed up her goggles and threw a grin and a thumbs-up in Slippy’s direction. Not certain what to think or how to respond, the amphibian returned her smile shakily.

To be continued...